Hubcap Ranch

This post ends with a story of how a good deed turned into an art environment. If you’re impatient to find out how this could be, skip to the end, but you’ll be missing some pretty cool art along the way.

A recent trip to California to visit family and  to tour the fabulous new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art turned into a glorious road-trip. In just three days the Bay area and surrounding countryside offered  up the most glorious array of artistic diversity.

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The undulating SFMOMA is now my favorite renovation of the myriad of museum upgrades that have swept the country in the last decade (shout out to Deputy Director Ruth Berson,  for her incredible leadership in this project).

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I really loved the little display of idea “sketches” for the museum renovation presented by the architectural firm, Snohetta:

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Across the street from the SFMOMA is the wonderful Yerba Buena Art Center which–jackpot!– was showcasing at the time of my visit one of my very favorite artists, Tom Sachs.

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Whacking together unbelievably complex and massive sculptures with little more than packing tape, cardboard and soda bottles, Sachs has constructed his visionary “Europa”, as part of his ongoing fixation with NASA’s space program. He has thought of “everything the astronauts will need to successfully complete their mission to Jupiter’s icy moon” including the all important outhouse which bears an uncanny and satisfying resemblance to a jet plane’s lavatory.

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Ruth Berson also introduced us to her beloved “Creativity Explored”, a studio workshop  and gallery for artists with intellectual disabilities.

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We loved it so much we went back for a second visit on Monday and saw the studio buzzing with productivity.img_4887

I doubt you’ll find another group of artists anywhere more intent on their work than here.

With the couple extra days I had  to tool around in California I headed up to Napa Valley. The drive through Napa Valley vineyards

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is a visual feast in and of itself. But we went to drink in a couple other sites. Our first stop: the Di Rosa Museum. A San Francisco friend had brought me there a couple years ago and I wanted to revisit with my son, who has inherited my penchant for all things quirky.

Situated on the shore of Winery Lake, the Di Rosa Museum houses the estate collection of the vineyard owning,  art collecting, bon vivants Veronica and Rene Di Rosa.img_20160923_121014687

One has the feeling as one tours the estate (and one can only see the DiRosa collection as part of a museum tour–don’t just show up there unannounced), that collecting art served as a great excuse to the Di Rosas for non-stop partying. It’s a wild ride following the twists and turns of the DiRosa’s art tastes.

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Art car master, David Best retooled this Cadillac for Veronica Di Rosa.

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And Rene jumped into the act of art making with this one creation of his own:

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Well, his hanging car may  not be great art, but just about everything else in his collection is top notch–some of my favorite  artists and so many great artists new to me, all hailing from  northern California.:

Viola Frey :

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These next two are Sandow Birk’s. Though created many years ago, they were apt viewing during our miserable campaign and election season.

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And this is Chester Arnold. Where have you been all my life, Chester?

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And Mildred Howard’s luminescent Bottle House:

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OK, finally! The real destination of this trip through Napa Valley (you will now be rewarded for slogging through this post to get to the bait tangled on the hook of the first sentence).  Litto’s Hubcap Ranch!  

img_4774 Located just one hour’s drive north of San Francisco, in Pope Valley, Hubcap Ranch was the retirement home of Emanuele “Litto” Damonte.  Litto,  came to California from Genoa, Italy in the early 1900’s. His father passed on his stone mason trade to him which provided Litto  with lucrative work, including marble carving for the William Randolf Hearst mansion.

A smooth ribbon of a road now passes by the ranch but at the time that Litto settled in Pope Valley the rough and winding dirt road was pitted with potholes which tended to pop the hubcaps off  passing automobiles. Litto thought he’d do a good turn by collecting the hubcaps and affixing them to his property fence.

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He assumed that folks who had lost them would pick them up the next time they drove by. Apparently nobody came to reclaim their hubcaps and soon the collection grew to the point where passers by thought Litto just LOVED hubcaps, so they started dropping off contributions for his “collection”. These too, he affixed to the front fence til that was full. He then extended the collection to the barbed wired that looped around the ranch.

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Before Litto knew it he had become a hubcap connoisseur. He singled out the most select examples for special placement on his out buildings and his home.

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No one’s got an exact count, but it’s said there may be as many as 5,000 hubcaps catching the rays on Hubcap Ranch.

Two years after Litto’s death, Hubcap Ranch received the official designation of  California Historic Landmark.

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Hubcap Ranch is currently the residence of Litto’s grandson, Mike Damonte, who does his best to maintain the property

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in all its quirky glory.

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Dr. Guislain Museum

A museum whose mission is “to  question the distinction between normal and abnormal”?  You know I’ve got to write a post about that! Just the name itself, the Dr. Guislain Museum, intrigues. Never mind the fact that the guidebooks don’t mention this museum as one of the reasons one might consider visiting picturesque Ghent, Belgium. It is this unique museum that put Belgium on my itinerary a couple years ago.

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I had noticed that several of the European outsider artists I follow had work in the collection of the Dr. Guislain Museum, and curious about the museum’s name in relationship to its collection I looked it up. Turns out, not only was Dr. Guislain a real doctor, he was an early proponent of humane care for psychiatric patients. He headed up the first insane asylum in Belgium which became known later, as the Dr. Guislain Hospital.

1-28-2013 565 Following in the enlightened footsteps of the hospital’s founder, the modern day (and current) director, Dr. Rene Stockman, pursued the provocative idea of converting a large part of the hospital into a museum. At the heart of this vision was the belief that light needed to be shed onto the dark history of psychiatry in order to normalize society’s relationship to the mentally ill. Rather than hiding away the array of objects and photographs that the hospital had in its possession, the director put them on display.

 So that’s one part of the museum: the history of psychiatry. There are two other components to the museum: temporary exhibits (mainly contemporary art) that relate in some way to the theme of mental health (There was a great show up when I visited entitled “Nervous Women”, which examined  illnesses historically and culturally  linked to women, such as hysteria and anorexia). The third section of the museum–the section that drew me to Ghent in the first place– is their major collection of art made by artists with mental illness or intellectual disability.
The Dr. Guislain Museum has the largest holdings of Netherlands’s most celebrated outsider artist (one of my all time favorites): Willem Van Genk.
Van Genk, who died fairly recently, (2005) drew, painted and sculpted the subject matter he was obsessed with: urban landscapes with a particular emphasis on transportation systems, and most with references to his other obsession–Russian communism.
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At the end of his life, Van Genk turned almost exclusively to sculpture. The Dr. Guislain Museum has  installed his work as it had been set up in Van Genk’s own home:
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The raincoats, by the way, were a major part of Van Genk’s oeuvre, as is the library of books upon which his massive train station sits.
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Another extraordinary room-sized installation of the little known outsider, Hans Langner, is testament in and of itself what an unusual institution the Dr. Guislain Museum is.
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Can you think of any other venue that has given such a difficult, idiosyncratic work this amount of space and this level of respect?
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A similarly sprawling cityscape (I neglected to take a note of the artist’s name) occupies another room. Ah! a little edit here: Dutch outsider art logger extraordinaire, Henk Van Es just emailed me to identify this artist–fellow Dutchman, Bertus Jonkers. Read Henk’s very interesting post here.
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And then there’s many, many stellar works by both well known and obscure outsider artists.
Oh, I wish I had taken note of this artist’s name. If by chance you know, tell me and I’ll  gratefully add in the info.
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 Henk Van Es to the rescue again! He helped me identify the maker of this submarine: another Dutchman, Gerard van Lankveld
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 The incredibly knitted work of: Marie-Rose Lortet:
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The dense collaged figures of Simone le Carre:
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Austrian artist, August Walla:
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This gem by Adolf Wolfli:
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Well, I could go on–I probably photographed the whole collection. Hopefully I’ve enticed you enough that should you find yourself in Brussels, you’ll hop on the train for the hour-long ride to Ghent. And drink in this treasure for yourself!
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Hat’s off (er, I mean–on!) to my fabulous travel partner, and coincidentally my husband, who was thoughtful enough to wear clothing that matched this very photogenic facade.
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Should none of this interest you, I am certain, that at the very least you will find solace in Ghent chocolate (It is Belgium, after all!) served to you by this chocolatier:
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I get the sense he was put off by the leopard skin coat of this customer. I know you will not wear a similar coat–so do not worry–he will be more friendly to you.
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Pollock’s Toy Museum

I love museums of all kinds: art, science, ethnology, history. And while I truly appreciate the big famous venues, I have a special place in my heart for small unheralded museums. Most of all I love a museum which perfectly reflects the gestalt of the collection. Rather than the traditional neutral role that most museums play in relationship to  their collections, these little anachronistic gems become works of art themselves. Their very beings are so intertwined with their holdings that collection and museum become one.

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Just such a gem is the Pollock’s Toy Museum in the heart of London. Currently under the directorship of the grandson of the museum founder, Marguerite Fawdry, Pollock’s began its life not as a museum, but as the workshop and store for Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Theaters. Mr. Pollock hand painted and constructed these popular Victorian  paper entertainments. The museum, which was founded in 1956 on the premises of the toy theater shop ( at a  different location than where the Pollock Toy Museum is today), has many of the original paper theaters in its holdings.  The collection has been augmented  with  Victorian through 1950’s era toys.

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Stepping into the museum I wanted to pinch myself to see if I had fallen asleep on the couch reading Dickens and was dreaming up my surroundings. The deeply satisfying, thickly layered paint of the red and green walls, doors and stairwell drew me into the space with a magnetic, slow motion kind of pull. After paying my 6 pounds to the ticket taker, who beckoned forward,  I found myself pleasingly alone in this twisty-turny multi-roomed museum.

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Up the steps, slowly, slowly, every inch another treasure to admire:

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And then the individual rooms! Oh! Categorized and organized, but not too organized.

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Stuffed with playthings, some just so barely brushing up against my own childhood that I wondered if my siblings would rush in and snatch the vision away and say these were their toys.

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But, no, we’d been taught to share, so all was well. I could relax and drink it in.

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And send myself backwards and forwards in time, at the same instant.

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and marvel over how certain it once had been that some toys were for BOYS ONLY. I was happy that my brother’s Meccano set, a favorite of all of us kids, had not had this definitive labeling by the time it was manufactured for my era.

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One of the things I love about the Pollock collection is how used the objects are. Chosen for being loved rather than for being in pristine condition.

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The doll room showed this most of all.

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And yes, the doll creep factor is in full swing in the doll room. This doll and the next could easily be responsible for the invention of the night light.

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Not hard to come up with a story for this pair, Constance and Geraldine, siblings trapped together for eternity, their individual personalities becoming sharper over the decades. Geraldine, always the  confident one, has become insufferable, and Constance, well, poor thing, by now she’s just a shell of her former self.

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Chastity could never go outside to play because she could not risk getting grass stains on her outfit.

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And no wonder she dressed this way. This was her mother–no fun at all!

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Here’s the look on Tildy’s face after her brother told her she most definitely could NOT play with his Meccano set.

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It was embarrassing going out with Gertrude. She didn’t seem to understand she was making a spectacle of herself. She never seemed to notice that folks were pointing at her and whispering to each other.

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Ah, that Lucinda! She’s been caught stuffing sugar cubes in her cheeks again.

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Mary Ella is the perfect child when her parents are at home. But as soon as they leave for the evening she throws wild parties that start with Spin the Bottle and then proceed to much, much worse activities.

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And these two kids, there’s a reason why they look, well, so disturbed…

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All their furniture is made with BONES!

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Time to go! Back down the stairs, past all those games there was never enough time for. (Yes, I CAN end on a preposition if I want to!)

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